Those who forget the lessons of televised congressional hearings are doomed to repeat them, which is why the morning segment of the Capitol Hill show trial of veteran FBI agent and former head of the Bureau’s Counterespionage division Peter Strzok turned into a disaster for Republicans.
Donald Trump’s congressional enablers, sycophants, and political suck-ups wanted a punching bag, but Strzok instead delivered one of the rarest of moments: the full Joseph N. Welch.
Welch, the chief counsel for the U.S. Army during the infamous McCarthy hearings in 1954, had reached a breaking point. After McCarthy’s tendentious badgering reached a fever pitch, Welch delivered a famous rejoinder that ended the Wisconsin senator’s career. Watched by millions on live television, Welch went full beast-mode.
“If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so,” said Welch. “I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me… You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
This morning, it was Strzok’s turn. After an hour of drama-queen badgering from Trey “Benghazi” Gowdy and Bob Goodlatte, Strzok issued two passionate statements that will be the takeaways from an otherwise disorganized and contentious shitshow of a hearing before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committees.
The first was a ringing defense of the FBI, with Strzok showing the kind of real passion that makes for great television. The FBI lifer issued a ringing defense of himself and his agency, punching Gowdy hard in the nose.
“I can assure you, Mr. Chairman, at no time, in any of these texts, did those personal beliefs ever enter into the realm of any action I took. Furthermore, this isn’t just me sitting here telling you you don’t have to take my word for it. At every step, at every investigative decision, there are multiple layers of people above me, the assistant director, executive assistant director, deputy director, and director of the FBI, and multiple layers of people below me, section chiefs, supervisors, unit chiefs, case agents and analysts, all of whom were involved in all of these decisions. They would not tolerate any improper behavior in me any more than I would tolerate it in them.”
He closed with this fastball:
“That is who we are as the FBI. And the suggestion that I in some dark chamber somewhere in the FBI would somehow cast aside all of these procedures, all of these safeguards and somehow be able to do this is astounding to me. It simply couldn’t happen. And the proposition that that is going on, that it might occur anywhere in the FBI, deeply corrodes what the FBI is in American society, the effectiveness of their mission, and it is deeply destructive.”
The second was a shot across Donald Trump’s bow: “I understand we are living in a political era in which insults and insinuation often drown out honesty and integrity. I have the utmost respect for Congress’s oversight role, but I truly believe that today’s hearing is just another victory notch in Putin’s belt and another milestone in our enemies’ campaign to tear America apart.”
This latest spectacle was designed for one purpose only: the destruction of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Donald Trump’s Russia ties. Republicans like Fredo Nunes who have tried to present a series of dramatic, table-flipping reality TV moments to reach that goal have failed time and again to derail the Mueller investigation. This morning was yet another swing-and-a-miss for the Trump GOP.
Because Trump supporters live in a hermetic media echo chamber, these hearings are part of a predictable, hokey Kabuki dance. They’re a device for generating a new round of hyperbolic base-only stories that will follow the same dumb arc as all the rest. In the coming days, you’ll see Sean Hannity flirt with apoplexy, coating the camera lens with flecks of spittle as he rants over Strzok’s perfidy. You’ll see pro-Trump columnists herniate themselves stretching to turn flippant text messages into a vast conspiracy. Twitter will be a flood of moronic memes, white-hot takes, and promises that Strzok will soon be in Gitmo alongside Hillary, Obama, Podesta, and Soros.
None of it will deter the Terminator in the Special Counsel's office. None of it will change the facts of Russia's interference in the 2016 election, and Trump's ass-deep ties to Russian money and influence. Trump's unhinged, shithouse-rat-crazy tweets today should tell you how deeply he fears Mueller.
Strzok was supposed to be a key in the imaginary conspiracy that Trump's congressional lackeys and media fantasists have desperately tried to write as history. The idea that his text messages poison the entire Mueller investigation was a pillar of their defense of the president. This morning they were going for a quick kill. They needed Strzok to flail, and wilt. The Gowdy, Goodlatte, and Gaetz types needed their grandstanding, dick-waving mock outrage to leave Strozk shaking and begging for mercy.
Strzok had none of it. In this morning’s round he left the Trumpists of the House staggered in their corner, cut and shaky, wondering where Strzok learned to hit back that hard.